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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Gallery 291

Even today, young men and women who paint often yearn to one day be rich and famous.  Yet, what they really desire is prestige, to be well thought of and influential.  Of course they tend to see this happening through the sale of their work,  media coverage, and personal relationships within the arts community. 

With that in mind, one of the most interesting stories in American art revolves around the life of a man who, while an artist of some repute with a tremendous influence on the history of painting in the U.S., probably never wielded a paint brush in his life.  He was born in 1864 in Hoboken, New Jersey, to wealthy parents of German descent, who had come to this country only a decade before.  He grew up with all the advantages of an upper-middle-class lifestyle, a college education, and study abroad in his parents' native Germany.  There in 1883, he began his art career in a medium that, at the time, wasn't considered by most people to even be an art medium--photography.  His name was Alfred Stieglitz.  
Upon his return to New York City, Stieglitz quickly established himself as a photographer with images of the city that mimicked the impressionist painting he saw in Europe.  He also founded and edited a small magazine called Camera Notes promoting innovative photography.  Due in large part to Stieglitz's efforts, photography demanded to become an art medium, at first imitating painting, then moving beyond imitation to emphasize those artistic advantages photography held over the other arts. 

The Steerage, 1907, Alfred Stieglitz
Perhaps Stieglitz's greatest single work has much the same qualities as a painting.  His classic photo, The Steerage, produced in 1907, appears to show the hopeful arrival of Emma Lazarus' "huddled masses" from Europe's overpopulated countries on it's lower level juxtaposed against the wealthy first class arrivals on the upper level.  In fact, the ship, upon which Stieglitz was a passenger, was eastbound, thus the so called "huddled masses" were returning to Europe.  
The trip was a fateful one for Stieglitz.  In Europe he met Pablo Picasso for the first time, to whom he showed the photo, The Steerage, which he'd so recently taken.  Picasso was said to have admired it greatly.  In Paris, Stieglitz met a number of avant-garde artists, and when he returned to the U.S., he brought with him some of their paintings.  

Stieglitz began showing them in his tiny photo gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue, side by side with  artistic photographs by himself and others. His was the first art gallery on these shores to display work by Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Duchamp, and Monet.  In later years, he moved toward photographic portraiture with his artist-wife, Georgia O'Keeffe, as his primary subject.  Meanwhile, his Gallery 291 remained a focal point in the evolution of avant-garde photography and painting in the U.S., until the building was torn down in 1917.  Stieglitz died in 1946, as revered by the painters he influenced as by photographers.  

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